Geoff Cameron - Clint Dempsey - Alejandro Bedoya - celebrate a goal for the US national team vs. Honduras

ORLANDO, Fla. – He’s the leading scorer (5) and top assist-getter (4) for the US national team this year, with more even than young superstar Christian Pulisic – and in fewer minutes played, to boot. He’s also the co-leading scorer in the program’s history, currently tied with Landon Donovan on 57 strikes, and he’s enjoyed yet another solid club campaign with the Seattle Sounders, for whom he’s also the top scorer in 2017 with 12 goals.

Yet Clint Dempsey, somehow, has thus far flown below the radar this week as the USMNT prepare for Friday’s enormous World Cup qualifier vs. Panama at Orlando City Stadium (7:30 pm ET | ESPN2, Univision, UDN).

“Deuce” has yet to address the media in Orlando. And with much discussion in recent months about his gradual shift to a supersub role at the international level, it’s far from clear whether he’ll make it into the starting XI for either of the Yanks’ pivotal Hexagonal matches. Coach Bruce Arena, more tight-lipped than usual in his remarks to the press, certainly doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to divulge even the slightest details about his lineup decisions.

But upon further thought, given the magnitude of the meetings with Panama and Trinidad & Tobago, who host the USMNT on Tuesday, it seems inconceivable that Dempsey would not get the call in one or both of these games.

For all the talk of throttling back the USMNT’s reliance on the man from Nacogdoches, Texas, he’s been as central as ever to their success. Dempsey, 34, has started six games this year – including four of their six qualifiers to date – and come off the bench in another three matches, providing the spark of swagger and creativity that is such a rare commodity for this program.

And even though it may have cost his team a point or three, Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer did Arena a favor over the weekend by limiting Deuce to a substitute role against Philadelphia on Sunday, increasing the odds that his body is prepared for a heavy load in these two games.

The USMNT attack has simply been too unreliable without Dempsey, who’s scored all of his 2017 goals in big moments like qualifiers and Gold Cup knockout-stage matches. Widespread chatter about the US shifting to a three-man back line for these games – which would make space for both Dempsey and Pulisic to start without compromising defensive protection – also underlines the extent to which Arena & Co. may adjust to liberate their two most dynamic playmakers.

“Clint will always be important to this team for as long as he’s with this team. Obviously everybody knows his quality and knows what he can do,” US defender and former Sounder DeAndre Yedlin told on Wednesday. “Even though he’s getting a little bit older, he’s still – I think – one of the best players on the team, one of the most important players on the team.”

At a time when clear eyes, calm nerves and cold blood are needed more than ever, the unflappable Dempsey’s quiet confidence is also a welcome influence as the USMNT try not to ponder the abyss of doubt and fear that would await them should they somehow fail to beat Panama on home soil.

“Whether it’s from his play or just his leadership through his play, he’s very important and I know, especially being a younger guy, we look up to him for guidance, because he’s been there,” added Yedlin. “He’ll always remain important.

“He’s always been great to me and all the younger players that I’ve been around. So he’s always willing to help them and kind of takes them under his wing, which is big for a younger player.”

Midfielder Michael Bradley is likely to wear the captain’s armband in these pivotal games, and has shown a willingness to shoulder the responsibility of media appearances. Pulisic is the “boy wonder,” the bright star who will draw the lion’s share of attention from Panama’s rugged defense. Seasoned regulars like Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard and Geoff Cameron will be relied upon heavily as usual.

But if the past is any guide to what transpires in Orlando and Trinidad in the days ahead, the keys to victory are still jangling in Deuce’s pocket.